‘It’s shocking’: Many disadvantaged schools will not have access to free school meals in September

Principals express frustration that 60,000 students in 310 new Deis schools will miss out when they reopen

Many schools in disadvantaged areas will not have access to free school meals for their pupils when they reopen in September despite assuming they would qualify for extra support.

A total of 310 schools with around 60,000 students are being added to the Deis (Delivering equality of opportunity in schools) programme in September, which provides access to a range of additional supports and, it is generally intended, school meals.

While Deis schools are funded by the Department of Education, school meals are provided under the Department of Social Protection’s budget.

A spokesman for the Department of Social Protection confirmed that funding is only available in 2022 for the 884 Deis schools which are currently in the programme and not the 310 new schools.

“Any provision to extend the programme to the newly added schools to the Deis programme will be considered as part of Budget 2023,” he said.

School principals in some of the 310 new Deis schools have expressed frustration that their pupils will miss out on free school lunches.

“Someone forgot to put it in the budget, and I think this is just shocking,” said Louise Tobin, principal of St Joseph’s Primary School in Tipperary town.

St Joseph’s has a sign outside, with pictures of bunting and smiling faces, which reads: “We are celebrating ... from September 2022, extra funds, more staff, school lunches.”

Ms Tobin, who is deputy president of the Irish Primary Principals’ Network, said: “I now have to go and tell parents that this isn’t the case. I’m sure other schools which joined Deis have had meals from day one. So, I’m really, really disappointed. I hope someone in the Government will address this. We can’t have children going without these lunches. I think parents will be raging.”

Niall West, principal of Church Street National School in Rathkeale, Co Limerick, also said the school was disappointed.

“School lunches are a very tangible benefit for parents — they see it and they understand; that was the big excitement in securing Deis status from their point of view,” he said.

“We have new Ukrainian pupils. The families live in a single centre and it’s difficult for them to put healthy lunches together. So, having access to the school meals programme would hugely benefit those pupils and ease some of the pressure on parents.”

He said school meal programmes have been shown elsewhere to improve school attendance and help with educational attainment.

A spokesman for the Department of Social Protection said the school meals programme overall provides funding towards the provision of food to more than 1,500 schools and organisations, benefiting 230,000 children.

He said the programme has been significantly expanded in recent years, including a new hot school meals option which Minister Heather Humphreys was keen to extend.

Green Party TD Steven Matthews called for emergency funding to be provided to fill the gap in school meals for new Deis schools when the reopen in September.

“The school meals programme is of vital importance to children,” he told the Dáil last week. “Many children go to school hungry and live in poverty and deprivation.

“The provision of school meals is a very small intervention by the Government to assist those children. I worked out that the budget for the school meals programme probably amounts to about €1 per day per student.”

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien is Education Editor of The Irish Times. He was previously chief reporter and social affairs correspondent